Establishing relationships with influencers has always been a major tenet of media relations. Prior to the explosion of social media in the last decade, communications professionals pitched their messages to influential print and broadcast journalists, leading analysts, newsmakers, and subject-matter experts.

These days, coveted influencers are also prominent individuals with a respected voice in social media; people who have the reputation and power to sway others with their opinions. They might be celebrities, journalists, industry pundits, domain experts or others who have a strong social presence. Perhaps their influence crosses social channels, or they might have the largest traction in a specific channel such as Twitter or Instagram. Maybe they generate the highest number of shares or engagement on LinkedIn, Facebook or online news sites.

Regardless, influencers represent opportunities to shape perceptions about your corporate and brand reputation, your products and services, industry issues, and even your public causes. These influencers might become your brand advocates; they also might help change the course of a negative conversation at an early stage.

For these reasons, influencer identification – finding all the right people, in all the right places – is one of today’s crucial best practices for media relations, corporate reputation, and crisis communications. This process goes hand-in-hand with influencer analytics, and the growing demand to measure brand success and help find ways to further refine communications strategies and tactics.

What is Influence?

According to the most popular dictionaries, influence is defined as “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development or behavior of someone.” More specifically, the Measurement Dictionary by the Institute for Public Relations describes an influencer as “an individual with specialized knowledge on a subject or highly recognized by an audience; an individual who has the ability to sway others’ thoughts.”

Going one step further, many influencer marketing programs break down the definition into two camps: a macro-influencer with millions of followers (for example, a celebrity), and a micro-influencer with a smaller audience but considerably more engagement.

The difference is key – influence is more than the size of a person’s social footprint; an effective brand ambassador is passionate about your company or your industry, talks about it frequently, and has a high engagement level with his or her audience. As well, an influencer’s content can be broadly shared across social channels, or dominant in one or two popular platforms.

A recent study by Markerly, an influencer marketing company that analyzed posts of more than 800,000 Instagram users, noted the engagement rate of micro-influencers on Instagram is considerably higher than those with more than 100,000 followers. Markerly co-founder Justin Kline told Buzzfeed News, “Brands tend to get higher engagement through people who may already be passionate about the product but have a smaller following.” As the adage goes, quality counts more than quantity.

Of note, both macro and micro influencers should always 1) align with your business and communications goals, 2) be authentic and relevant, and 3) generate confidence among their followers.

The Effect of Influence

Many studies suggest that reviews and recommendations by online influencers increasingly guide consumer decisions. In other words, people turn to influencers they trust before making purchasing decisions. This is supported by McKinsey, Nielsen and others who have found that word-of-mouth recommendations from trusted sources are the primary factor behind 20 to 60 percent of all purchase decisions.

On the flip side, keep in mind that a negative post from a prominent influencer can also foreshadow a potential crisis. If that happens, act quickly. Analyze the conversation and find insights to inform your strategy. Time is of the essence, so you can hopefully respond to the influencer before the discussion spreads.

But also beware of, and ignore, unfavorable posts that have no traction – no engagement, no shares, and no velocity of pickup. Keep your eye on the discussion, but don’t perpetuate a dialogue if there isn’t one already happening.

Save Time and Money

Another benefit of influencer analytics is very practical – it is less time-consuming, and therefore less expensive, than trying to measure the entire universe of social media conversations about your brand.

Not surprisingly, the magnitude and reach of social posts can make analytics complex; it takes days, even weeks, to analyze every person’s posts about your brand in every media channel. You could use an automated tool to capture all the chatter. Or you could analyze a sample of posts to reduce the noise. But will you truly get the real picture of your brand’s media success? And is it possible that you will miss an important alert to a potential pending crisis?

A better solution is to monitor and analyze the discussions of the few but mighty influencers in your industry. This approach is more effective than tracking the social media universe, in addition to being less costly.

Next Steps

Once you have determined that an influencer strategy would be helpful for your brand, set up an analytics program to find those few and mighty in your industry – determine who is the most influential for your brand (and for your competitors), and evaluate which of their messages and social media channels resonate with your target audiences. Compare their quality of conversations to influencers with whom you already have relationships, perhaps journalists at news or consumer publications.

After creating a new list of potential influencers, be sure to conduct additional manual research to find out their profiles and interests; the channels where they are active; their most common conversation topics and hashtags; basic statistics (such as the number of Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, Facebook likes); their engagement and share rates; and other relevant social footprint data. Your list of influencers should then be incorporated into planning for an updated media outreach program.


Influencer analysis provides a strategic road map to the media landscape, but directions might change frequently. New influencers become dominant on industry issues, existing influencers move elsewhere, and topics of interest shift. This means you should update your influencer list every month or at the very least, quarterly. Ongoing measurement helps you stay current with these changes.

My next post in July will examine more specific, data-driven ways to find influencers and measure influential social media conversations.

Meanwhile, if you would like to learn more about how to identify key influencers for your brand, download our eBook: Identifying the Influencers that Matter.

Margot Sinclair Savell is an award-winning writer who has decades of experience crafting and editing content. During 15 years at agencies such as Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Weber Shandwick, she specialized in strategic counsel for measurement, insights and analytics. In 2016, she was inducted into the PR Measurement Hall of Fame.